Nelson Mandela: Surprising lesson on appearance

Nelson Mandela

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I recently read “Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage” by Richard Stengel.

I loved the book: it’s inspiring, informative and uplifting. It’s a landmark book that transcends time periods and crosses cultures to show us a better way to live and to love our fellow human beings.

As we all know, Nelson Mandela’s life experience is truly one of the signature life stories of the 20th century – a story that encompasses injustice and resistance, imperialism and democracy, suffering and triumph.

In his childhood, he was a tribal king’s protégé in South Africa, learning the ways of an ancient people. In his adulthood, he fought apartheid – the total segregation and domination of black Africans in their own country – and spent 27 years in prison for his rebellion.

And in his 70s, he became the first South African president to be elected in a democratic election.

The book is the result of countless hours that author Richard Stengel, now managing editor of Time magazine, spent with Mandela in the 1990s. For nearly three years, he traveled with Mandela, watched him campaign for the presidency, ate meals with him, collaborated with him on his autobiography, and became his cherished friend.

In “Mandela’s Way,” which came out in 2010, the author draws key lessons from the stories he heard and the interactions he saw that revealed how Mandela dealt with people and with his past.

In a time when we have so few heroes, Mandela is certainly one of them.

He overcame adversity to change the course of a continent. The lessons we can draw from his life are profound.

Appearance matters

As I was reading about Mandela’s moral leadership and wisdom, you can only imagine how stunned I was when I got to Stengel’s life lesson chapter entitled “Look the Part.” The last thing I expected was that this near-saint of a man would put such importance on his appearance.

Stengel writes: “We strive to judge people by the content of their character, but Nelson Mandela understood that sometimes the best way to help others see your character is by how you appear. All his life, Mandela was concerned with how things looked – from the color of his shirt to the way a policy appeared to his supporters to how straight he stood. He would never tell anyone not to judge a book by its cover, because he knows we all do. Although he is a man of substance, he would say that it makes no sense not to judge by appearances. Appearances matter, and we have only one chance to make a first impression.”

Mandela understood the power of image. “Appearances constitute reality,” he once said. He understood the power of symbols and that symbols often had more of an impact than substance.

Interestingly, Mandela was intent on playing the part of the person he wanted to be. It turns out that he loved clothes. He paid attention to exquisite fabrics. He meticulously ironed his own shirts when needed. He used clothes to build an image of confident power.

Nelson Mandela also capitalized on his natural assets. Stengel relates that he was nearly obsessed with maintaining a stately posture. He realized early in his life that his smile was part of his power. He worked at perfecting it, like a great actor. He used his smile to win friends as well as to hide hurt and sadness.

In short, appearance was a key ingredient in Nelson Mandela’s efforts to achieve his life goals to help his country and humanity.

Did he instinctively know this? Was he taught this? It was an interesting side to this complex man.

I strongly recommend the book. To pique your interest, here are the other 14 lessons from “Mandela’s Way.”

  •  Courage is not the absence of fear.
  •  Be measured.
  •  Lead from the front.
  •  Lead from the back.
  •  See the good in others.
  •  Keep your rivals close.
  •  Have a core principle.
  •  Know when to say no.
  •  Know your enemy.
  •  It’s always both.
  •  Love makes the difference.
  •  It’s a long game.
  •  Quitting is leading too.
  •  Find your own garden.

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